Cardiorespiratory Fitness Lowers Cancer Mortality Risk, Study Finds

More evidence of the connection between cancer risk and exercise levels.


  • A new study found a link between higher cardiorespiratory fitness and lower risk of certain cancers.
  • The researchers also found an association between higher fitness level and lower risk of dying from cancer.

Cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), marked by your VO2 max, refers to the capacity for your circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to the muscles during sustained exercise, and the American Heart Association notes that it’s an important health marker for both physical and mental health.

As new research in JAMA Network Open suggests, it’s also a factor in reducing risk of colon and lung cancer in men.

Looking at data from a large cohort study in Sweden, researchers analysed health and physical activity information on almost 18,000 men between the ages of 18 to 75, collected over nearly 10 years. CRF was assessed using a cycle ergometer test, which measures heart rate and oxygen consumption. They found that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with lower risk of developing colon and lung cancer. For those who did develop those cancers, higher fitness was associated with lower risk of death from those cancers within the study’s timeframe. One possibly counterintuitive finding from the study is that higher CRF was associated with higher prostate cancer incidence. However, even in that result, researchers noted that those with high fitness levels showed a 5 percent lower death rate from that cancer.
Given the wide range in ages, researchers were able to determine that the cancer hazard risk was lowest for younger, non-smoking men at a normal weight and with the highest CRF.

Overall, researchers concluded that having very high CRF levels for any age could prevent up to 8 percent of all colon cancer cases, 4 percent of all deaths from lung cancer, and between 4 to 19 percent of deaths from prostate cancer. They added that it’s likely higher-intensity physical activity could have even more protective effects.

Although the recent study was done only on men, there is ample other research showing similar benefits for women in terms of both cancer prevention and longer survival rates for those who do develop cancer. For example, a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine about cancer recurrence in men and women with stage III colon cancer found that for physically inactive patients, disease recurrence peaked within two years of treatment, but that wasn’t true with physically active patients, according to that study’s lead author, Dr Justin Brown, director of the Cancer Metabolism Program at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Brown told Runner’s World that even for people who had not been very physically active before a cancer diagnosis, making the effort to get consistent exercise can improve health outcomes overall. That means you don’t just potentially live longer through reduced cancer risk or lower recurrence risk, you live better as well.
“Whether someone has cancer or they’re considering what could lower their risk, there’s something about this disease that causes people to step back and evaluate decisions like how they’re treating their health,” Brown said. “Health is comprised of many components, of course, but physical activity is a key starting point, and a crucial factor when it comes to lowering your risk level with cancer.”

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